Watch Yourself

What not to do in Yellowstone National Park

Published online: Jun 01, 2021 Articles, East Idaho Outdoors Kris Millgate
Viewed 2245 time(s)

“Lady in the purple pants!” yells the ranger.  “Get back in your car!” 

That’s what I hear every time I watch footage of a grizzly bear eating an elk calf in Yellowstone National Park. The footage is terrific, but the soundtrack is terrible. It turned my story about endangered grizzlies into a story about oblivious tourists. 

Lady in the purple pants is ignoring all warnings at a bear jam. She’s eagerly moving in for a front row seat at the show. But this isn’t a show. It’s the wild. The real wild and a sow with cubs won’t tolerate people closing in. Lady in the purple pants is closing in. She’d kill for a photo of cubs. The sow would kill for its cubs. 

“People don’t realize these are wild animals. They’re unpredictable and they’re fast,” says Linda Veress, Yellowstone National Park spokesperson. “Yellowstone is a once in a lifetime thing for some people and they’re so excited to be here, but at the same time they may not know the best way to experience the park.”

The best way is the safe way. Yellowstone isn’t a zoo, so watch yourself. Here’s what NOT to do when you visit the nation’s first national park, a park more than 4 million people visit annually.

Don’t Touch

Don’t touch or take the animals. They are not yours to touch, take or feed. Stay at least 25 yards away from wildlife. Make that 100 yards for wolves and bears. 

In May 2016, a father and son pair from Canada were much closer than that and they did more than touch. They showed up at Yellowstone’s Lamar Buffalo Ranch with a bison calf in their car. They thought it looked cold so they took the wild calf thinking they were helping it, but they were actually hurting it. Park rangers tried returning the calf to the herd, but it didn’t work. The calf had to be euthanized. 

Don’t Stray

The Earth’s crust is thin in Yellowstone. That’s why there are springs and geysers exploding everywhere. That’s also why there are boardwalks through risky sections. Stay on them. Don’t stray. People get burned and sometimes killed when they wander. 

In a 2019 case, an overnight guest sustained severe burns when he left the boardwalk and fell in thermal water near Old Faithful Geyser. The morning after, rangers found blood, a shoe and a beer can at the scene.

Don’t Boil

An Idaho Falls man did more than stray in August 2020. He and his party of nine hiked Shoshone Geyser Basin with cooking pots. The ranger found the group then also found two whole chickens stewing in a hot spring.  

The Idahoan was charged with violating closures and use limits, fined $600 for each charge and banned from the park for 2 years. 

Don’t Drone

Overhead footage of geyser basins is beautiful. It’s hard to resist a quick quadcopter launch, but you have to resist. 

The park banned drones in 2014, the same year a Dutch visitor crashed his quadcopter in Grand Prismatic Spring. He was fined $3,000. His drone is still in the spring.  

Don’t Pee

Hot pools are not toilet bowls so don’t pee in them.

When a Colorado man was caught on camera at Old Faithful Geyser in a stance used for urinating, park devotees were appalled. It happened in September 2018. The man had to stray from the boardwalk to reach his chosen pit stop. Rangers arrested him as soon as he returned to the boardwalk.

Don’t Squat

In this case, tourists are using the right bowl, but not in the right way. 

A few years back, the park started tallying unusually high amounts of broken toilet seats. Discovering the cause took some translation. Visitors from countries where holes in the ground are latrines, climb on toilets in America and squat with their feet on the seat. 

That’s why new signs are showing up throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They look like “no parking” signs, except the red slash is over a figure squatting on a toilet rather than sitting on it. The park also built more toilets and converted some of them to holes in the ground. 

“It’s just part of the bigger picture on visitor use and impact. It’s just not toilets. It’s overcrowding,” Veress says. “Visitation has definitely increased and when you have more people, there are more chances for things to happen.” 

The things that happen in the park seem outrageous, but they’re real. Lady in the Purple Pants included. She didn’t get attacked by that grizzly, but she got a stern lecture from the ranger. Pretty mild compared to penalties other people face for doing what shouldn’t be done in Yellowstone. 

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. Her first book ‘My Place Among Men’ is available now. See more of her work at


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